Maria Rose Belding grew up in a rural community in Iowa, from a part of the world that’s populated more by cows than it is humans, she says. She worked in food pantries from a young age, and she presumed problems she encountered around communicating the delivery of food to those in need was down to the rural nature of her surroundings.
Surely someone, somewhere, had designed a free online system to alleviate these issues—rural Iowa was just waiting for the technology to arrive. But, it turned out that despite technology’s omnipresence in our lives, no-one had used its potential to connect America’s non-profit food pantries with the outside world.
At just 14, Maria decided she would take it upon herself to do something about it. She set about researching in middle and high school, work that would eventually lead to her to launch Matching Excess and Need for Stability Database (MEANS).
MEANS is an online platform for any soup kitchen, homeless shelter, food bank, or folk in need, that connects them with restaurants and food retailers who have food to donate. It’s a free database that helps distribute the 133 billion pounds of food thrown away annually in the US to those in need.
The venture now operates out of American University’s (AU) Center for Innovation—ranked among the top 20 entrepreneurship centers in the world by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)—where Maria is pursuing a bachelor of science in public health.
“About one-in-eight American families rely on an emergency food provider,” Maria says. “In some cities it’s more like one-in-four, or three, or even two depending on where you are! Meanwhile, the US throws away up to 40% of its food supply.
“The thing is, it’s a solvable problem,” she adds. “It’s a priority!”
MEANS works in 49 states and Puerto Rico. “The beauty of a tech company,” Maria explains, “is that you don’t have to put boots on the ground to be effective!”
So far, MEANS has found a home for 1.9 million tons of food. They also find homes for over 90% of the food donated on the website. The average amount of time for an item to find a home, Maria adds, is half an hour—even less in some places, and under 10 minutes in Rhode Island.
Since the website was formally launched in early 2015, MEANS has brought on board over 3,000 partners, and it continues to grow.
The American University Center for Innovation—open to any student at AU, including budding entrepreneurs from the Kogod School of Business—has been a blessing, Maria says.
“Having office space is so, so nice. We weren’t in the AUCI for the first year and then we got in. We were meeting in random coffee shops and my dorm room, so it’s helpful to have the space, as well as the executives in residence.”
There are currently two executives in residence—William Bellows and Thomas White—who teach courses on entrepreneurship and business to MBA students, as well as offer mentorship to the entrepreneurs working in the Center for Innovation.
Thomas himself is a former MBA student from the Kogod School of Business, graduating in 1995. Maria says he gave her a key piece of advice for MEANS: trust people but don’t entrust them with the future of your business.
The AUCI also provides students’ ventures with an initial $1,500 and gives them the opportunity to develop their entrepreneurial mindset, carry out market research, and acquire further financial resources to grow their ideas.
Siri Terjesen, AUCI director and dean’s research fellow in entrepreneurship at Kogod, says that entrepreneurship is vital because it teaches an innovative mindset to students that they can leverage for the rest of their lives.
“We are developing these long-term mindsets for people to be self-starters,” she adds. “In many cases, the university is the first and unfortunately the last stop to develop those skills.”
Entrepreneurship at the Kogod School of Business offers students an avenue away from corporate capitalist labels. Entrepreneurship leans heavily towards social impact, but also teaches students about the importance of being self-sustaining.
That is made possible through the close mentoring students receive in the AUCI—a rarity, Siri says, in many of today’s universities.
“In this age, where there are so many constraints on professors’ time, in many cases they are barely there. [AUCI] gives increasingly rare one-on-one interactions between faculty and students.”
The American University’s Center for Innovation has seen ventures launched across a wealth of industries—indicative of the benefits reaped from opening the AUCI to anyone on campus. But, there is a direction, Siri explains, that AUCI likes to see students go.
“What we like to see are more tech-based ventures,” Siri concludes. “Students working in tech-based fields like computer science, physics, and biology, working either alone or with faculty on innovations they can find a commercial use for.”